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The Formation of the Political Elite in Modern Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Factors

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Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 allowed the American side to exert multifactor influence on the formation of a new elite. Even the technical implementation of the voting process, not to mention the principles of the new Constitution, were dependent on the United States. But the United States had directed the political process in Iraq even before the country adopted its new Constitution in 2005 by creating two key bodies: the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). On June 9, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1546 that endorsed “a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq” and a “timetable for Iraq’s political transition to democratic government.” [1]

The 2005 election urged forward by the United States established a new political elite that received international recognition but limited legitimacy at home. Since the election was held in a very difficult environment and was boycotted by a large share of the Sunni population, just how representative it exactly was has been called into question.

Following its own logic in relations with Iraq and being embedded in the regional context, Iran decided to use the levers already at its disposal to influence the Iraqi political process and shape a favourable political elite in the country. In fact, this process began long before the U.S. invasion, because movements opposing Saddam Hussein had already been formed and their leaders often lived in Iran. Despite the fact that most religious and political movements in Iraq can trace their origins back to the 1950s or 1960s, as the Islamic Dawa Party, which has become the most formidable opponent of the Iraqi authorities, actually developed during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. The leaders of Dawa, who were in exile, mostly lived in Iran.

Starting in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the exiled opposition was increasingly influenced and dominated by Kurdish ethnocentric and Shia faith-based political forces. Opposition figures that aspired to keep the vision of Iraqi nationalism homogenous and centralized increasingly gave way to political forces driven by an ethnoreligious agenda [2]. Depending on the political situation, Iran continued to lend limited support to various Kurdish forces opposing the central authorities in Iraq.

After 2003, Shia political forces sought to form coalitions, a key example of which was the alliance between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in 1982 and had engaged in close cooperation with the United States even before 2003. The key constituency for SCIRI was Iraqis of Iranian origin and the Marsh Arabs that migrated to Iran at times of crisis. Baghdad has always seen these population groups as untrustworthy [3]. SCIRI was headed by representatives of the country’s religious elite – the well-known Hakim family of Shia religious scholars. Support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani consolidated the position of Dawa and SCIRI in post-Saddam Iraq.

After the United States occupied Iraq, the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the influential Sadr family called his supporters to take up arms against the occupants. His followers formed the Mahdi Army that killed hundreds of American soldiers. The Sadrist Movement attained considerable influence in parliament and represented Shia communities from south and central Iraq, the Marsh Arabs and the Baghdad district of Sadr City (named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who opposed the regime and suffered at its hands) [4]. The Sadrists’ military wing retained considerable influence over the state security system.

Despite having some political clout and a few ministerial posts, the Sunnis found themselves marginalized in the new situation and did not have influence over the decision-making process in Baghdad as the case for, for example, the Nujaifi clan from Mosul. The main forces opposing the United States and the central government in Baghdad were the Naqshbandi Army (which had ties to the former Ba’ath Party) and Al Qaeda in Iraq [5]. Attempts to inject Sunni groups (the Sahwa or the Al-Iraqiya movements, which also included Sunnis) into the political elite were generally unsuccessful.

The ongoing marginalization of the Sunni population by the Nouri al-Maliki government and the radicalization of society, compounded by falling oil prices and the war in Syria, led to the establishment of an alliance of various groups in 2014. That alliance became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). The new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed the post in 2014 and represented the Dawa Party, decided not only to fight ISIS, but also to carry out some reforms. His efforts were greatly facilitated by the positions of Tehran and Washington, which have tacitly supported Abadi’s initiatives to form a technocratic government to fight corruption since 2016.

By jeopardizing the patron-client relationship and the distribution of wealth enjoyed by the old Iraqi establishment, al-Abadi fell into disfavour with many, including members of his former party Dawa. As a result, many wanted to oust him from the post of Prime Minister. But Iran and the United States put pressure on their partners within Iraq to prevent that from happening. This led to a reconfiguration of political forces in 2018 that nevertheless preserved the same elite.

The training of new security forces in Iraq by American experts, including in U.S. training camps effectively amounted to training various militias or groups linked with militants from the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. For them, collaboration with the United States was a matter of pragmatism, since everyone realized that Washington would play a defining role in the future federative Iraq. At the same time, the Shiites, who had become the dominant group in Iraq, were looking to the Iranian model of governance.

The formation of the new political elite in Iraq and the country’s security forces was thus directly dependent on the presence of U.S. occupation forces, the policies of Iran and Iran’s ties with movements opposing Saddam Hussein. The dominant Shia political groups proved to be very diverse and heterogenous, with different political interests and a strong radical influence.

The 2018 Election Results in Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Trace

Stopping ISIS was the main objective for the Iraqi Army. But achieving a national conciliation between the political forces proved to be a key condition for the country where Sunni interests were deeply embedded in the power structure. The “Kurdish issue” also popped up on the agenda. The independence referendum held by the Kurds in territories controlled by Erbil in September 2017 put Baghdad and Prime Minister al-Abadi personally in an awkward position before the 2018 election and lent strength to their political opponents.

Similar to the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran sided with the central government. This led Baghdad to carry out a military operation to restore sovereignty and even regain control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. This loss for Kurds – meaning a failure of the referendum – revealed a rift between the two major forces of Iraqi Kurdistan: the Barzani and Talabani clans (the latter was experiencing division itself after the death of former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani). However, this heralded a new stage in the consolidation of power of the central government and even a rise in nationalist sentiment.

A critical event that happened even before the 2018 election was the split within the State of Law Coalition and the Dawa Party, which had been in power since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Most of the seats in parliament were won by the Saairun coalition (also known as Marching Towards Reform), giving it the upper hand in forming the government. The coalition was headed by the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an extremely influential religious figure. However, this did not prevent his movement from using a nationalist and anti-corruption agenda as a platform. However, the Fatah Alliance (sometimes translated as the Conquest Alliance), a coalition that had been accused of ties with Iran on numerous occasions, finished a close second to the Sadrists, winning almost as many seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance is believed to have been supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. However, none of the abovementioned parties won a majority in parliament. It was clear that even the most prominent players would have to negotiate a compromise with each other, as well as with less influential forces.

It was more than three months before the new parliament met in early September 2018. The political process stalled as thousands of people took to the streets for rallies and demonstrations, with the biggest protests taking place in Basra. The political forces eventually had to find common ground and start forming a government. Again, it was the intervention of Marja Ali al-Sistani that became the catalyst for agreement.

The first step that signalled the redistribution of power was the election of Chairman of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq. On September 15, 2018, the 37-year-old member of parliament from the province of Anbar and member of the Al-Hal (“Solution”) party Mohamed al-Halbousi was elected by a majority (with 167 votes) as the Speaker of the national parliament. Hassan Karim from Saairun took the post of First Deputy Speaker. He garnered an even larger majority than the speaker, receiving 210 votes. On the whole, al-Halbousi can be considered a compromise figure both for Iran and the United States. His first visit, however, was to Kuwait, which hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq early that year. This suggests that the new speaker is counting on the support of the Gulf monarchies and intends to focus on reconstructing the country after the war.

The next step was the election of the president and prime minister. The presidential post had been traditionally held by a representative of one of the largest Kurdish political forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite the presence of several other candidates on the list, the most likely was former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, considered to be pro-American. Salih was not running as a single candidate for Kurds, as had been the practice since 2003. The very return of Salih to the PUK (he had quit the Union just before the election to form his own party) and the support he received as a presidential candidate were predictable.

But the Iraq Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for president, which, again, exposed a division among the elites. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani clan, Erbil) nominated Fuad Hussein, the former President of Kurdistan Region. Evidently, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah reached a last-minute agreement on the distribution of power at the federal and regional levels. Barham Salih ultimately became President, and Fuad Hussein became Minister of Finance.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet are a key junction in the power architecture of Iraq, and it was this point that became the focus of struggle. All parties had to trade concessions and search for compromise. A way out of the deadlock was ultimately found, and the solution was not in favour of Prime Minister al-Abadi. Several days before the election it was clear that the pendulum had swung in favour of former Minister of Oil and Vice President of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

The country continued to be run based on the quota principle of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, with a member of the Kurdish community as president, a Sunnite as a parliament speaker and a Shiite as prime minister. In reality, the system that had been established remains essential for Iraq. External forces, both in Iran and the United States, continue to work with Shiite political and military groups. They remain an organized force and are viewed as the basis for security and statehood, just as they were before the 2018 elections.

U.S.–Iran Relations under Donald Trump and Challenges for Iraq’s Political Elite

Iraq has traditionally been influenced by the dynamics of U.S.–Iran relations. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 reduced friction between the United States and Iran, strengthened pragmatic groups within the Islamic Republic, and created relatively favourable conditions for stabilization both in the region and in the Iraqi domestic political process. By the end of 2017, Baghdad had regained control of key cities and settlements largely thanks to the efforts of the al-Abadi government to coordinate the assistance of the two opponents and most important players in the region (the United States and Iran) in the fight against ISIS. However, with the defeat of ISIS and the removal of the topic from the global agenda, the United States and Iran no longer had any grounds for further “silent” engagement, so it ceased.

A new round of confrontation began following the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 and the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, which put Iraq in an uncomfortable position. The U.S. sanctions against Iran that followed Trump’s decision caused serious damage to the country’s economy and endangered any agreements between Tehran and third countries due to the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions. For example, under the threat of sanctions, the French concern Total withdrew from the largest project to develop the South Pars oil and gas field by selling its stake to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Large-scale U.S. sanctions against Iran could cause serious damage to Iraq due to the interdependence of the economies of these neighbouring countries. Iraqi representatives have held regular meetings with members of the U.S. administration, stressing the need for the country to cooperate with Iran. Baghdad has been able to secure several deferrals, and Washington has exempted Iraq from the sanctions regime (for 90 days each time).

Iran continues to be a vital source of electricity for Iraq. However, even though there is a need to replace Iranian oil on the world market – and Washington is working on this task – there is an increasing role for Iraqi oil in it. If the American side decides to stick to its policies, then it can also impose sanctions against Iraq, which will lead to increased risks and instability.

Constant pressure on Tehran did not lead to a revision of the “Iran deal,” which is what President Trump initially wanted. In such circumstances, Iran could have set about escalating regional affairs. In this case, it had the tools to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and, of course, in Iraq. For a long time, Major General and Commander of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran, Qasem Soleimani, was considered the key coordinator of Iranian actions in Iraq. He is credited with many of the achievements of Iranian politics in Iraq, including the agreement on the results of the elections and nullifying the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

Iran demonstrated particular care and accuracy in establishing its influence on the Iraqi political process after the Iraqi elections in 2018. During their visits to Iraq in 2019, both Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani held meetings with almost all political leaders and public figures over the course of several days. Unlike the Iranian side, U.S. representatives usually arrived with unplanned visits. On one such occasion, Donald Trump personally flew to Iraq to visit an American base, where he met with soldiers. The trip did not include meetings with any leaders of the variegated Iraqi political spectrum.

Iraq’s foreign policy as a whole became more balanced after the formation of the new government, where Mohamed Ali Alhakim stood at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq prefers to have several points of reference to help it pursue its course. For example, while visiting Moscow, Alhakim outlined Iraq’s principled position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, a policy which runs counter to the U.S. agenda in the region. At the same time, Baghdad has its own interests, namely, to ensure security on the Syria–Iraq border. In addition to cooperating with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq interacts with Iran, Russia and Syria within the framework of the Baghdad information and coordination centre. At the regional level, Iraq seeks to become a platform for dialogue between various regional and global actors [7].

Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.

It became increasingly clear that the elements of Iraqi politics that had become traditional since 2003 had been preserved. The political forces that had established themselves at that time and the external players supporting them – the United States and Iran – continue to perpetuate this system. At the same time, there are calls within the country to eliminate the influence of external players in determining the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. This, of course, creates opportunities for other countries to pursue their interests, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Russia, but also makes them adjust their policies regarding the United States and Iran, which have a traditional presence in Iraq.

The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.

1. Sapronova М. А. The Constitution of Iraq in the Past and in the Present. Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2005, p. 84.

2. Hashemi N., Postel D. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 117.

3. Minyazhetdinov I. K. The Balkanization of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and the Spread of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Sapronova M.A. Op. Cit, p. 88.

From our partner RIAC

MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Council

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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

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photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

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Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War

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War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.

               The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

               International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.

Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?

               War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.

               While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.

               Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.

               The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.

               Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.

               Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.

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Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate

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A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.

Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.

The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.

The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.

The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.

The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s  co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.

To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.

China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.

To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.

A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.

It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.

They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.

Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.

“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.

The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.

They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.

Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.

Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.

The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas  J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.

By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.

That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies  as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.

The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.

Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.

Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.

An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.

Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.

The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.

Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.

China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.

China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”

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